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SPEARS: Fellow Travelers

CD Button Guthrie, Schoeny, Lieberman; Blake, Lattanzi, DeLoach, Scholten, Hartman, Pursell; Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Gibson. English text. Fanfare Cincinnati FC-011 (2)

Recordings Fellow Travelers cover 318
Critics Choice Button 1015 

THE “LAVENDER SCARE” of the 1950s is not as well remembered as the “Red scare,” but it had a devastating impact on the gay community it targeted. The prevailing wisdom was that “deviant tendencies” could make any government official the target of blackmail, meaning that suspected homosexuals needed to be purged just like communists. Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel Fellow Travelers, set during the McCarthy era, chronicles the experiences of a fictional victim, an aspiring journalist, Timothy Laughlin, who comes under the influence of, and becomes the lover of, Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller, a state-department official. Tim, a devout Catholic, McCarthy supporter and closeted gay man, is subsumed by his passion for Hawk, who in the end cruelly abandons him. 

The adaptation by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce,which received its premiere in 2016 at Cincinnati Opera, has enjoyed considerable critical and popular acclaim, and it’s easy to see why: the opera has gripping historical resonance, as well as fully fleshed characters through whom we explore multiple compelling themes—forbidden love, discrimination, coming of age, vulnerability and betrayal. Spears’s music is predominantly bright and welcoming, full of pulsing major chords and a Baroque stateliness that includes gaudy ornamentation, both instrumental and vocal. We also hear sweeping, Puccini-style melodies and occasional dollops of pungent, neoclassical harmonies. Catchy musical motifs are woven insistently into the fabric, practically daring you to forget them. (One in particular that recurs in several scenes is alarmingly close to Simon and Garfunkel’s “59th Street Bridge Song.”) Usually, Spears’s consonant harmonies are assured and effective. In one memorable sequence, after Tim and Hawk have been to bed together for the first time, Hawk proposes a dreamy-sounding vacation in Bermuda. As the scene grows into a luscious duet, the ear-massaging sonorities and well-judged vocal harmony make a powerful impact. 

Elsewhere, the music can be too harmonious to convey the requisite dramatic heft. When Hawk is interrogated about his suspected homosexuality, repeated ostinato Cs in the accompaniment are meant to sustain the tension, but the chords are too pretty. Spears skillfully weaves incriminating flashbacks in and out of the scene while Hawk is taking a polygraph test, but an ominous edge is missing. Similarly, in the betrayal scene, when Hawk rats out Tim to the same interrogator—ostensibly for Tim’s own protection—the swelling emotion and preponderance of diatonic chords seem wrong. Still, Spears’s treatment of Pierce’s prose libretto is frequently memorable. He has a sure instinct for when to repeat phrases, overlap lines and create rapturous ensembles. Pierce provides distinctly etched characters and lively, singable texts.

Aaron Blake (Tim), with his appealingly boyish tenor, and Joseph Lattanzi (Hawk), with his strapping, enveloping baritone, play off each other perfectly as the neophyte and his older, more worldly partner. Blake is especially good in his solitary reverie after the lovers’ first night. With its luxuriantly rolling accompaniment and soaring vocal line, this is one of the opera’s best numbers; Blake’s tenor pulses with the agony and the ecstasy of the affair (“I died last night”). Lattanzi covers a broad dramatic range, from the cheerful confidence of his attractive public face to the quiet, genuine affection he unexpectedly feels for Tim. 

Devon Guthrie, as Mary, Hawkins’s shrewd office assistant, is a warm, comforting presence, and she has some wild upper-range flights in her aria about her protective feelings toward Tim. Vernon Hartman, Alexandra Schoeny, Christian Pursell and Paul Scholten all deliver strong performances as assorted colorful D.C. types, as does Marcus DeLoach as both the stern Interrogator and the swaggering Senator McCarthy. Talya Lieberman is light, bright and sweet as the possibly self-deluded young woman Hawk marries in Act II. Mark Gibson conducts the first-rate Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; it’s an exemplary performance, with kudos in particular to the virtuoso solo wind players.  —Joshua Rosenblum 

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